Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: August 2008

Friday, August 29, 2008

Movie Review: Traitor - Political Actioner Reminiscent of the Best Seventies Thrillers

by Tony Dayoub

Traitor is a timely thriller that still manges to evoke the spirit of the best of the seventies' thrillers. Like The French Connection, Dog Day Afternoon, and other films of that period, it gives us its story from a variety of perspectives. By casting such a wide net, it allows writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff to build the tension effectively in the climax, simply by pulling that net tighter until the central focus is the central character, Samir Horn (Don Cheadle).

Horn is a disaffected Muslim-American, and an ex-U.S. army explosives expert. When the film opens, he is in Yemen eking out an existence by selling his explosives and expertise to the highest bidder. This brings him into contact with Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui), a fiercely loyal jihadi soldier serving the Nathir terrorist cell. Their transaction is interrupted by an anti-terrorist task force, coordinated by FBI agent Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce). Clayton is one of the new generation of egghead agents, holder of a PhD. in Arabic Studies, and loathe to use violence over brains and persistence when trying to get an answer in his investigations. Horn is hard to pin down, though. He doesn't fit the traditional profile of a terrorist or mercenary. And what's his relationship to Carter (Jeff Daniels), an independent contractor for a U.S. intelligence agency?

The movie takes pains to give a balanced look at the divisive issues behind terrorism. Horn's decisions are clearer to us once put in the context of the death of his Sudanese father in a car explosion when he was a child. The fact that he must keep even his most basic religious duty - prayer - in check, or risk being the target of prejudice at work, seems like an understandable inciting incident that propels him to seek solace in the company of jihadi soldiers. Omar's support of terrorism as a weapon is but one facet of the jihadi's commitment to the cause. He also demonstrates a surprisingly pragmatic outlook when ordered by his superior to drink a glass of wine while dining in public. Even the Western-raised Horn has trouble breaking that Islamic prohibition. Agent Clayton is flexible in his efforts to track down the Nathir terrorist cell, open-minded enough to create an extensive profile of Horn in greater detail than his job requires. Raised in a conservative religion himself, he feels a certain kinship with Horn, and is reluctant to write him off as just another disillusioned Muslim joining the cause.

Like Hackman's Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, or Pacino's Sonny Wortzik in Dog Day Afternoon, Cheadle creates a complex lead that serves as an entry point into a mysterious subculture. Hackman's Doyle was a relentless cop, obsessed with closing his case more than achieving any real justice. Pacino's Wortzik was a clueless amateur thief whose love for a transsexual pushed him to commit a bank robbery, and into a media circus. Cheadle's Horn is in over his head just as much as Wortzik was in Dog Day. And though he is able to reconcile his spirituality with his betrayal of his Muslim brothers, he is just as dogged as Doyle in French Connection. But what all three characters have in common is that they are but small cogs in a machine that is much larger. Just as Doyle's efforts will have little impact on the French drug trade, and Wortzik's media stardom will fade away once the fickle press has no more story to tell, Horn's involvement in the jihad is only as long-lived as his usefulness to the cell is.

Director Nachmanoff effectively sets up each aspect of the story like dominoes. As one subplot is resolved, the domino falls, propelling the next one to its natural conclusion, and so on. Each domino falls until the only one left is Samir Horn and his motivations. The only saving grace for Samir is, unlike the protagonists of the earlier seventies thrillers, his ability to accept his place in the scheme of things.

Working within the limitations imposed by his situation may be the only thing that can save Samir Horn's life.

Still provided courtesy of Overture Films.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

DVD Review: The Nightmare Before Christmas - Collector's Edition Worthy of the Animated Masterpiece

by Tony Dayoub

Fans of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) should be excited with a number of different versions of the newly restored and remastered film, now available on DVD and Blu-ray. The stop-motion animated film is fast becoming a must-see classic in both the Halloween and Christmas season. And now, after previous failed attempts, the definitive version finally makes it to retailer's shelves.

The story of Halloweentown's Pumpkin King, Jack Skellington, and his crusade to bring his version of Christmas to both our world and his own, was based on a poem by Tim Burton. After years of shopping the story to various studios, Burton teamed with composer Danny Elfman (Hellboy II: The Golden Army) and director Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach) to deliver the film to the screen.

Surprisingly, this beautifully realized masterpiece had been released in a special edition DVD with lots of extra features, but with an inferior picture unsuitable for such a classic and unsuitable for today's HD TVs. Well, the new collector's edition corrects that by giving us a crisp anamorphic picture, Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, and on the Blu-ray, TrueHD 7.1 audio.

While many of the special features of the new collector's edition overlap with the initial special edition's extras, there are some new bonus features that make this worth purchasing. A digital copy of the film is included, suitable for downloading on Macs and PCs. There's a holiday tour of Disneyland's Haunted Mansion, which is taken over by Jack Skellington every year around Christmas time. Also included is a new commentary track by Burton, Elfman, and Selick, that in all honesty suffers a bit from being edited from separate conversations with each, rather than a shared interaction. But the best feature is a recitation of Burton's original poem by actor Christopher Lee (Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith) showcasing some of Burton's original line drawings used when designing the final film.

For the true raving fanatic, there's also a limited edition release available in a coffin-shaped box that holds a bust of Jack Skellington and a "Sandy Claws" hat and beard. Any way you choose, the collector's edition of The Nightmare Before Christmas is a must-have for your DVD collection.

Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas is available on DVD and Blu-ray today.

Stills provided courtesy of Buena Vista Home Entertainment.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Seventies Cinema Revival: Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan

by Tony Dayoub

Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972) is the unwieldy title of this Shaw Brothers film. Its unusually frank depiction of lesbianism in a martial arts film is what elevates this into a minor cult classic.

I've been sitting on this one for a while, not because I didn't like it. In fact, I loved this movie. My reluctance is due to the fact that I'm not well-versed in the martial arts genre outside of some Bruce Lee films. However, I just had to recommend this one because of the pure enjoyment I experienced when watching it.

It takes its time getting started, setting a somber mood with its snowy first scene where a constable investigates a murder of a prominent man in the community. The last person seen with him was the beautiful courtesan, Ainu (Lily Ho). In the subsequent flashback, a much younger Ainu is kidnapped and delivered to a brothel run by Lady Chun (Betty Pei Ti). Determined to break her into submission, Lady Chun allows Ainu to be raped by some important customers, a group of men that hold significant positions of power in the local establishment. The madam's strong attraction to Ainu's rebellious spirit soon becomes a physical one. Chun mentors Ainu in martial arts. Ainu secretly promises to avenge herself, starting with the murder from the beginning of the film. As she hunts each man down, Ainu finds her feelings for Chun becoming complicated, as she nurtures an apparent erotic interest for Chun as well.

Director Chu Yuan executes the fight scenes with a deft sense of mise-en-scène that is sorely lacking in today's badly edited action sequences. The placement of each participant in every action scene is clear. Design elements important in establishing a sense of time and place are always paid the attention due to them. Pay attention to these, in this clip of the film's opening, where they stand apart from the more frequent action in the latter half of the film.

Another surprising aspect to look for is the complexity in the female relationship. I was expecting that, in this traditionally exploitative genre, the affair between the Ainu and the Lady Chun would be depicted lustily. In fact, probably due in no small part to the taboos of the times (and specifically Hong Kong society), the homosexuality is treated sensitively. Though the scenes of intimacy between them are shot in good taste, they still manage to hold erotic power, even today.

It is also interesting to note that as the movie heads towards its conclusion, it becomes more and more difficult to tell Chun and Ainu apart. As Ainu's thirst for vengeance starts asserting its hold over her, the similarities to the equally corrupt Chun become more evident.

Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan is a fascinating and sensitive look at female-to-female relationships in an otherwise traditionally male-oriented action genre. The movie is also - at just 87 minutes - a lean, mean, revenge thriller. It is worth your time seeking this film out.

Friday, August 22, 2008

DVD Review: Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? - Documentary or "Reality TV" Brought to the Big Screen?

by Tony Dayoub

Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock is back. His last documentary, Super Size Me, was a charming exploration of the effects of McDonald's fast food on someone if eaten 3 times daily for a month. He's similarly gone on to explore other issues on his FX network show, 30 Days, where he subjects himself to a certain lifestyle - like living in jail or living with a homosexual - for a month. In his newest film, Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?, he ostensibly goes on a search for Bin Laden and ends up getting an education in Islam, instead.

With his wife pregnant, Spurlock claims his thoughts turned to the kind of world they were bringing their baby into. It being a post-9/11 world, he soon hones in on why Bin Laden has managed to escape justice for so long. This spurs him to go on an international manhunt for him, visiting countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan. The documentary explores the reality of living under Islamist rule, and the role America has played in Mid-East politics. It also tries to dispel some of the myths that are perpetuated regarding Muslims.

The problem with the film lies in Spurlock's approach. While the focus on him worked in his first documentary, which was about the relatively small-scale problem of fast food and obesity, this angle does not work as well here. Often times playing the themes for laughs, Spurlock is shown conducting basic defense training for his trip, visiting unfriendly local middle eastern neighborhoods as he tries to fit in (by growing his reddish beard out... but still wearing good old American denim jeans), and gently prodding women at the mall to take off their burkas. This teasing is charming when the object is a corporate giant like McDonald's. But in this film it comes off as a little elitist.

Spurlock also starts to betray a quality of self-aggrandizement. He centers the film on the locals' various reactions to him at the expense of the answer to his question. In Israel, he practically provokes a fight with the local Hasidim, after being told to leave their neighborhood, in order to spice up the proceedings. In his attempts to blend in, it's as if he is doing so with a large neon sign over him that says, "Hey, isn't it neat how well I'm blending in?" Even his interactions with his wife betray a certain self-centeredness. Leaving your wife during a pregnancy for a trip to a hostile area of the world is not exactly the most sensitive thing to do.

It is unfortunately becoming a subgenre of the documentary, perhaps inspired by "reality" TV, where the documentarian becomes part of the proceedings. In a film exploring issues of current importance to our society, it is sad that the object of examination gets lost in such antics.

Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? will be available on DVD this upcoming Tuesday, August 26th.

Still provided courtesy of
Genius Products and The Weinstein Company.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Movie Review: The Express - Football Flick Falls Prey to the Usual Cliches

by Tony Dayoub

The Express is the story of Ernie Davis (played by Rob Brown), the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy. Davis was actually given the moniker of "The Elmira Express" since he was from Elmira, New York. Though based on a true story, the fact that the film's title has been modified to make it more marketable is indicative of the type of glossy Hollywood sports movie Davis' story has been turned into. The movie is a paint-by-numbers translation of that Hollywood standard, the "young athlete with loads of promise who meets a tragic end"- with a small measure of race politics thrown in. All of its potential edginess has been glossed over in favor of rousing action on the gridiron, and the movie suffers for it.

Beginning with a Davis as a stuttering youth (Justin Martin), growing up in a small coal town outside of Pittsburgh with his grandfather, Pops (Charles Dutton), he moves to Elmira with his mother, where he joins a small-fry football league. Eventually he is actively being sought after by 50 colleges, no small feat for a black man in 1959. But it isn't until coach Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid), and football legend Jim Brown (Darrin Dewitt Henson), come calling that he decides to join their team, the Syracuse Orangemen. As a sophomore, Davis leads the team to an undefeated season and a win over the #2 ranked Texas Longhorns at the Cotton Bowl. Despite facing racism at nearly every point in his life, he eventually becomes the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy and goes on to play for the Cleveland Browns. His career is cut short, before he ever plays one game for the NFL, when he develops leukemia in 1962.

The movie falls prey to the usual downer sports movie touches that have become cliche over time. It's not enough that Davis will meet a tragic end. The viewer's sympathies are immediately manipulated by making the child Davis a stutterer, only for the stammer to disappear once we leave him as a youth. The film cuts to his grandfather's funeral briefly, in the midst of his rapid rise to stardom in college and all the hoopla surrounding it. But is there any emotion attached to the event? When Davis is informed of Pops' death, the camera takes it in from afar, cutting us out from what must be a weighty moment in the athlete's life. We get early hints that Davis is headed for some bad news, in brief scenes where he suffers mysterious nosebleeds. But after a lengthy time spent establishing his astounding career in college (close to 20 minutes on the Cotton Bowl game alone), the discovery of his leukemia, and his response to it, are rushed. We never get an idea of how he coped with his short life after. Even the classic TV movie, Brian's Song treated a similar storyline with much more respect, making the tragedy, and its emotional fallout, the centerpiece of its film.

Race politics are included as another in a long line of obstacles for Davis to overcome, but the method in which it is addressed is also typical for Hollywood. Much of this subplot focuses on Davis teaching a white man, Schwartzwalder, why it is wrong to stay quiet when faced with even the subtle racism of the day. We get an appreciation of what this white man learns, and how he becomes a better man for it. As for Davis, we see him attain near-mythic status as the young player who overcame a stammer, Pops' death, nosebleeds, and racism on and off the field to eventually be awarded as the best college football player of 1961. Outside of a small obligatory scene where he speaks of it to his cousin, we never get a true sense of how difficult it must have been to face the pressure of having such a symbolic role thrust upon him. I would have been interested in seeing Davis' interactions with Jim Brown, a well-known activist, who similarly had run-ins with the coach over institutionalized racism.

The film is strongest when it's on the field. All the play action is shot tightly, and easier to follow than you might think due to some deft editing and cinematography. With such a dearth of football movies, it is worth watching if just for that. But unless you're a diehard football fanatic, you might want to consider waiting for The Express on video.

The Express opens on October 10th in theaters across the country.

This entry first appeared on Blogcritics on 8/20/08.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

My 12 "Holy Grail" Films

by Tony Dayoub

MovieMan0283 (I still don't know my friend's name) over at The Dancing Image has just tagged me for a Dozen Movie Meme of My Holy Grail Films, meaning 12 films I've never seen, and can't obtain on video in the U.S. He got the idea from Piper at Lazy Eye Theatre, and I guess Out 1 got MOVIEMAN0283 into the game. For more on the rules I had to follow, you can go here. I've chosen to tag:

Aaron Aradillas at The House Next Door and Movie Love
Dylan Fields at Blog Cabins
Glenn Kenny at Some Came Running
Jeremy Richey at Moon in the Gutter
Dan Seitz at thetathx1138's journal

As for the movies, since I haven't seen them, I'll follow my friend's example and use any IMDB commentaries or summaries to describe them. My list follows after the jump.

The African Queen (1951, dir. John Huston)

"...this film will always be the validation of Humphrey Bogart's long and distinguished career. His portrayal of the hard drinking Charlie was what made this film what it was. Also, he showed just how great an actor he was when he was able to match up against the woman who is generally considered to be the greatest actress in film history, Katherine Hepburn."(Brian Washington)

Brewster McCloud (1970, dir. Robert Altman)

"Bud Cort plays Brewster McCloud. He's a very strange young man who lives in the Houston Astrodome and is building a huge set of wings so he can fly. The movie is about him and his VERY odd assortment of friends and family. And how about the killer running around Houston strangling people and leaving bird droppings on them? As you can see this is a very strange film. It's unlike anything director Robert Altman has ever done. The film isn't perfect--it's too long, the weirdness wears you down at times, some of the humor is real sick and there are characters that are just disgusting (Stacy Keach) or too flat out weird, even for this movie (Jennifer Salt)! And what's with the circus ending (entertaining as it is)? Still I love this film."(Wayne Malin)

Cul-de-Sac (1966, dir. Roman Polanski)

"Desperate hoodlums overcome borderline insane proprietor of Northumberland castle and his loose wife in order to rescue their situation. One wonders how these things got sold to the money men! In fact there's a great deal to like in this cult picaresque film. Plenty is unexplained - starting with the wonderful opening idea, that the getaway car is a stolen driving instructor's vehicle. There's such a profusion of ideas, location-proffered opportunities and good acting that it seems difficult to criticise in retrospect."(Framescourer)

The Devils (1971, dir. Ken Russell)

"For some, it's a horrific and unwatchable display of savagery, while for others it's an intense yet rewarding ride into a city besieged with madness. It is Ken Russell's most tolerable film to sit through, because it is always interesting and contains many memorable scenes and images, but at the same time it is highly controversial and challenging, often making you want to turn away from the screen."(Jonathon Dabell)

Il Vangelo secondo Matteo a.k.a. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964, dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini)

" far the best depiction of the last days of Jesus' life. By taking the view that Jesus was a revolutionary rather than emphasising the religious aspects, the film succeeds in presenting a unique view of the life, and death, of Jesus and the reactions of His followers. There are no mystical halos descending from heaven, no 'angelic music' and none of the other cliches that Hollywood's attempts at presenting the story usually contain. Instead the humanity of those who lived the story comes through, and by doing this the film takes on emotional, even religious intensity totally lacking in other, larger budget depictions of Christ. Possibly the most moving part of all is the moment Peter realizes he has disowned Jesus three times. This isn't portrayed as some great epic Biblical act, the denial of the Messiah, but rather as the actions of a man, scared for himself, who, when he realizes that he has betrayed his friend runs away in shame sobbing uncontrollably."(dababog)

The Jericho Mile (1979, dir. Michael Mann)

"An interesting and involved film about a 'lifer' just trying to live out his days peacefully. Elements of the main character appear in Michael Mann's later films, like Thief (1981), Heat (1995), and so on."(awatters1)

L.A. Takedown (1989, dir. Michael Mann)

" is superior in many ways to the remake Heat. The movie rests solely on the performances of the actors and the writer/director rather than on any star attractions or hype (Pacino and De Niro have both made far better films and put in far better performances). There are a few good set pieces in here, and a myriad of fine acting performances from both the leads and the supporting cast. The fact that the remake was relatively faithful to the original is in itself a bit of a homage... where the two films really differ is in the action sequences that overtake the story in the remake. If you want to watch a more intelligent and somewhat darker crime thriller, then I recommend this before Heat every time."(roger-hepburn)

Pirates (1986, dir. Roman Polanski)

"Polanski's talents did not wane with his exile from the U.S. Basically what I'm trying to say here is Polanski's talent for genre redefinition is alive and well in this wonderfully comedic look at the action-adventure film. Not only this, but he also manages to re-evaluate and comment on the action hero as well as the genre as a whole. It is puzzling, as in most Polanski films, to ask yourself are the main characters heroes, and if so what kind? and if they are heroes, then to look at the way the film treats them... and with Polanski this is always a fresh, beautiful, and rewarding task." (PMGII)

The Pit and the Pendulum (1991, dir. Stuart Gordon)

"As mentioned, Lance Henriksen gives what is maybe his best performance in this film. He is both powerful and frightening in his role as Torquemada, the head witchfinder of the Spanish Inquisition. When he says 'I am the inquisition', it's enough to make your hairs stand on end. Henriksen is a criminally underrated actor and one that certainly deserves more's just unfortunate that he tends to shine in movies that don't get noticed." (The_Void)

Song of the South (1946, dirs. Harve Foster, Wilfred Jackson)

" it racist? Well, it has no overt depictions of racism and therein lies the problem: Song of the South presents life in the Southern states after the civil war as idyllic and harmonious, a place where white people live in their mansions, black people in their cabins, everybody knows their place and is happy in it. 'Yes sir, things are lookin' mighty satisfactual' says Uncle Remus and his Br'er Rabbit stories convey the same social conservatism: leaving your home (to a non-segregated North for instance) is pointless because 'You can't run away from trouble. There ain't no place that far.' This movie can't imagine a single reason why a black man living in the post-slavery South wouldn't be happy with the way things were." (bartman_9)

Vampire Circus (1972, dir. Robert William Young)

"An often overlooked gem from Hammer, Vampire Circus is one of Hammer's best and most original vampire films. Count Mitterhouse has been feeding on the children of a small village and they storm his castle and eventually kill him, but he lives long enough to tell them that their children's blood will bring him back to life. 15 years later, when the village is cut off from the outside world because of the plague a circus breaks through the roadblocks and comes to the village. At first the villagers welcome this entertaining attraction/distraction, but soon they realise that something is wrong, and their children are in danger again as the circus people go about their business of making the Count's prophecy come true." (Steamcarrot)

What? (1972, dir. Roman Polanski)

"What? is one of those few movies to play on the obvious notion that 99% of all pornography is just plain silly - hence unwatchable to any viewer with even an elementary sense of the ridiculous. Its 'parody porn' screenplay reads like an LSD-fueled collaboration between Escher, Borges and Lewis Carroll. Not only is it far and away Roman Polanski's funniest film. It is also, quite possibly, his most stylish." (david melville)

Monday, August 18, 2008

Seventies Cinema Revival: Shaft's Big Score

by Tony Dayoub

With the passing of the legendary Isaac Hayes last weekend, private dick John Shaft has been on my mind a lot lately. In fact, flipping through cable channels the other night, I happened on a Shaft marathon, on TV One. But though Hayes deserves a large part of the credit for putting Shaft (1971) on the map with his Oscar-winning theme song, there are three other men whose contributions cannot be ignored. Nowhere are their contributions more evident than in the underrated sequel Shaft's Big Score (1972).

Sure, the first Shaft is a landmark film, inducted into the National Film Registry in the year 2000, for its cultural significance. But even watching it today, it is pretty self-conscious about it's importance. Richard Roundtree brings an undeniable regality to the role, but the script by Ernest Tidyman and John D.F. Black lays it on a little thick when it comes to Shaft's racially charged anti-authoritarian streak. Here is a conversation between two cops about Shaft:
Tom: Hey, where the hell are you going, Shaft?
Shaft: To get laid, where the hell you going?(Laughs)
Tom: (to Androzzi) That boy's got a lotta mouth on him.
Lt. Androzzi: The boy's man enough to back it up, too.
Tom: What'd he tell ya'?
Lt. Androzzi: Nothin'.
Tom: You gotta lean on that kind!
Lt. Androzzi: You don't lean on that kind.

And another exchange between Shaft and a girlfriend:
Shaft: Sorry, I can't make it.
Ellie: You got problems, baby?
Shaft: (Laughs) Yeah, I got a couple of 'em. I was born black. And I was born poor.

And aesthetically, Hayes' monumental score overshadows the wonderful atmosphere created by the director, former Life magazine photojournalist, Gordon Parks. Parks really captures the New York of 1971, shooting on location in Times Square and Shaft's neighborhood of Greenwich Village, even down to the espresso with lemon peel he orders at the local coffeehouse.

But what Shaft's Big Score affords us is the opportunity to see the singular John Shaft, divorced from Hayes addictive musical styling, in a less racially volatile context than the first Shaft. For example, Parks, renaissance man that he was, composed the sequel's score when Hayes was unavailable to do so. In many ways, this score is more evocative of the time than Hayes' score is. Though structurally similar to the first score, with the slow build up before the arrival of the vocalist, and the interjection of female voices throughout, the second score's use of horns is more jazz-tinged and less funky than the first one. Check out Parks' main theme, "Blowin' Your Mind" with vocals by O.C. Smith.

Parks skillfully ratchets up the tension through the use of parallel editing in the clip above. Midway into the film, Shaft gets worked over pretty good in the speakeasy-like casino in the back of Mother Ike's, a bar owned by his antagonist, Gus Mascola (underplayed with uncharacteristic quiet relish by Joseph Mascolo). Again using the parallel editing to enhance the action he cuts between two go-go dancers gyrating while covered only in body paint, and Shaft getting his ass handed to him by Mascola's enforcers in slow-motion, while the song "Move On In" is heard over the parallel action. Like a true auteur, Parks is able to marry his music to his images in this film in a way he couldn't in Shaft. The emotionality and physicality evoked by the marriage of the two leaves all political subtext behind, and strips the character of John Shaft to his essence.

This essence was conceived by a white author, Ernest Tidyman. Tidyman was the author of all of the Shaft novels, and brought his pulpy style to the movies when he wrote the screenplays for The French Connection, Shaft, and of course, Shaft's Big Score. One of the few whites to ever win an NAACP award, I suspect that his first Shaft was rewritten by John D.F. Black to be more topical. Shaft's Big Score is less concerned with Shaft's chip on his shoulder, and more intrigued by the detective's ability to maneuver through the various worlds of cops, mobsters, and underground New York. This movie's Shaft is aware of the "street survival" game and how to play it, as we hear in his exchange with a police captain:
Bollin: How come we never hassled Cal Asby? Go ahead, ask me.
Shaft: You never hassled him 'cause he's probably layin' some heavy bread on you guys every month at the precinct.

Perceptive enough to know the cops are looking for the easiest way to solve the murder of his pal, Asby, Shaft is able to stall them from going after him, and manipulates Captain Bollin into circumstances where he must confront the threat of Mascola's encroachment into black Queens. Tidyman does this by retaining Shaft's cunning creative approach to fighting crime, in this case teaming up with two popular miscreants from the first Shaft, Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn) and his associate, Willy (Drew Bundini Brown), in order to protect Queens from Mascola's crew. These setups and double-crosses are evocative of film noir more than anything else. By casting African Americans in this neo-noir landscape, with little fanfare about race politics attending the event, Tidyman actually makes more of a positive statement. He demonstrates how any man, regardless of color, can successfully fit into a traditional genre movie without resorting to the preachy heavy-handedness of the first film.

And what of the actor who personified the cool detective? Roundtree was consistent in his excellent performances throughout the first three movies, the little-seen TV spinoff, and the 2000 John Singleton remake/sequel. Good-looking, educated, and smooth, his Shaft was equal to James Bond in producing envy among male fans, and admiration from female ones. Roundtree brought a roguish, but regal quality to the man, that was sorely missed in Samuel Jackson's take in the Singleton version where he played his namesake nephew. Only Roundtree can keep our sympathies when he beds down with a crook's seductive mistress while investigating his own girlfriend's brother's death in Shaft's Big Score. Sadly, a major portion of his role as John Shaft was cut out of the 2000 sequel, where he was supposed to team up with his nephew to take down the criminal. One can't help but wonder if audiences would have embraced the original actor's return, especially in light of Roundtree's resurgence in the popular eye in recent years in such hit shows as Heroes and Desperate Housewives.

Shaft's Big Score gives us a chance to appreciate the talents of three of the co-conspirators in the creation of a memorable film icon. It does so because it is a straight crime neo-noir with a captivating leading man, involving characters, a strong sense of setting, and less race politics to distract us from the thrills of this escapist entertainment. Watch it today, and let me know your thoughts on the film.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Movie Trailer: The Brothers Bloom

by Tony Dayoub

Here's the trailer for a film from the director of Brick, Rian Johnson. The Brothers Bloom is scheduled to open on October 24th.

It stars Rachel Weisz (The Constant Gardener), Adrien Brody (The Pianist), Mark Ruffalo (Zodiac), and Rinko Kikuchi (Babel).

The story is about two brothers, con-men, who decide to bilk an heiress. But they didn't count on her addiction to the illicit thrills she witnesses, or the attraction developing between one brother and their mark.

Click on the picture below for a look at the trailer, and let me know what you think.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Movie Review: Tropic Thunder - Repetitive Jokes Fail to Keep This Spoof Aloft

by Tony Dayoub

Read today's post (and its subsequent comment thread) on Glenn Kenny's movie blog, and you'll get a sense of how the rapidly waning days of the summer movie season can play tricks with a man's mind. It seems like with kids heading back to school, one of the most exciting Olympiads in recent memory, and the intimidating behemoth of The Dark Knight still looming large in multiplexes, studios have designated August as the dumping ground for their weakest films. In the last few weeks we've seen the release of the third Mummy movie (who cares), Pineapple Express (virtually unintelligible and not funny), and now Tropic Thunder, which I was really hoping would lift me out of the funk. But with flicks like this one, it's easy to see why Kenny is so downbeat on the state of cinema today.

The movie follows a film crew shooting a Vietnam war movie. After going over budget, the film's director (Steve Coogan) decides to shoot the film guerrilla-style. Dropping his group of actors in the perilous jungles of Burma, most of them realize the true danger they are in. But Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) remains blissfully unaware for much longer, focused instead on reinvigorating his declining career. With Method actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey, Jr.) and drug-addled comic star Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black) only slightly less confused than Speedman, hilarity should ensue. Co-written and directed by Stiller, Thunder spoofs action movies, war movies, Hollywood actors in particular, and the film industry in general.

It's this lack of focus that contributes to the idea that this is essentially an extended one-joke sketch that goes on for far too long. The dialogue is consistently witty. When Speedman tries to convince his fellow actors to go after the "Vietcongs", rapper/actor Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) replies, "It's Vietcong. The word is already plural. You wouldn't say 'Let's go after the Chineses.'" There are lots of amusing visual jokes also, like the faux trailers that open the movie, where we see Black's Portnoy starring in a Nutty Professor-like comedy where he plays multiple roles, titled The Fatties: Fart 2. There's even surprise cameos by some well-known actors of all stripes, including a substantial supporting role by Tom Cruise, as fat, balding, profane Hollywood producer, Les Grossman, that by turns can be seen as wildly raunchy or distinctly anti-semitic. But it strikes of an attempt to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks. And halfway through the film, when you pat yourself on the back for catching the umpteenth reference to Apocalypse Now, you start realizing how repetitive the movie is becoming.

Concerned about references to the mentally challenged as "retards"? The real butt of the jokes are the dense action stars, like Speedman, whose insensitivity in using the term speaks to a certain lack of awareness. Downey's performance in blackface? Again, the target is not African Americans, but the well-known Method actors who like the character of Lazarus seem to increasingly be Australian. Is Cruise's depiction of Grossman an anti-semitic caricature? Maybe, or maybe it also speaks to a certain lack of awareness by the true-life action star. That would be funny.

But forget about whether you would support a movie that is generating so much controversy right now. Better to take a break, and enjoy the Olympics at home while awaiting the start of the fall season of art movies. The fact is that while Tropic Thunder would be okay for a rental on DVD, it can and should be skipped theatrically.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

DVD Review: Smart People - Loaded with Fine Performances, Quaid's is Still a Cut Above

by Tony Dayoub

Smart People is an intimate little film replete with great performances. Having premiered in Sundance earlier this year, the film is a sharp-edged comedy that features some well-known actors cast against type. Thomas Haden Church as a sweet, wise slacker; Sarah Jessica Parker as a physician with low expectations for her personal life; Ellen Page as a young overachieving Republican... each is fascinating to watch in their individual performances. But the film rests on the more than proper shoulders of one of the most underrated actors of our time, Dennis Quaid, who as Lawrence Wetherhold, must walk the thin line between hateful misanthrope and likable grouch.

Wetherhold is a widowed college professor, living a semblance of a life, while still managing to excel at a tendency for monstrous self-absorption. His daughter, Vanessa (Page), loses herself in her pursuit of an Ivy League college admission. His son, James (Ashton Holmes), is the only one who has escaped the growing depressive atmosphere of their home. And the stirring of a romance with a former student of his, Dr. Janet Hartigan (Parker), seems destined to continue the family's descent, since Hartigan's life seems marred by her own brand of self-pity. But when Wetherhold's brother, Chuck (Church) - adopted brother, as he is often reminded of - comes to stay for a while, he starts helping the family grow past their emotionally stunted existence.

If any one is playing against type in this cast it is the good-ole-boy likable, aw-shucks good-looking Quaid. His Wetherhold is an erudite, bullying intellectual who is shopping a manuscript around the publishing houses entitled, "You Can't Read!" daring his readers to think critically when analyzing literature. He also has a full beard, dresses in tweed, and looks about 25 pounds heavier. But beyond the hunched posture, and slow shuffle of this tale's Willy Loman, you can still see Quaid's dynamic persona. Yes, the slow drawl that characterized his performance as Doc Holliday in Wyatt Earp (for which he lost a scary amount of weight), or the glint of the eye that he featured so prominently as Gordon Cooper in The Right Stuff, may be hidden, but somehow, Quaid's charisma still manages to keep you focused on Wetherhold in all of his quiet stillness.

Without his fine performance this would be just another indie with a collection of oddball emotionally immature characters in search of life's answers. Unsurprisingly, Smart People, and its cast, succeed because of the strong center he provides to this familiar story.

Smart People is available on DVD and Blu-ray Hi-Def today.

Still provided courtesy of Buena Vista Home Entertainment

Monday, August 11, 2008

Isaac Hayes and Bernie Mac

by Tony Dayoub

Isaac Hayes was a legend. For many it was because of his voice work as Chef in South Park. For others it was his Academy Award for Best Original Song that gained him that distinction. But for me, it was the music that he was responsible for during his time at the southern soul music label, Stax Records, that helped him stand apart.

While at Stax, he cowrote well-known hits like "Soul Man" and "Hold On, I'm Coming" for famous soul duo Sam & Dave. Hayes would go on to record his own albums for Stax, first releasing the unsuccessful Presenting Isaac Hayes in 1967. Then, solidifying both his fashion and musical style, he released Hot Buttered Soul in 1969. On the cover is Hayes' bald head, wearing his soon to be trademark sunglasses and gold chain. In the album are his unique, jazz-inflected, orchestral, epic-length songs, including notably, a cover of Dionne Warwick's "Walk On By" clocking in at just over 12 minutes. Dominated by horns, organs, and his smooth, deep voice, his music had crossed over, but his greatest hit was yet to come.

Composing a full feature-length score for the pioneering blaxploitation film Shaft (1971), it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Dramatic Score. His "Theme from Shaft" won the Oscar for Best Original Song. Soon, Hayes' look and sound led to his casting in genre films of his own, such as Truck Turner (1974), and Escape from New York (1981).

But today's audiences know him mostly from his voice work as cafeteria worker Chef on South Park. There, he garnered attention from a new generation of fans.

Hayes died yesterday, ten days short of his 66th birthday.

Recommended Films - As Composer: Shaft, Truck Turner

As Actor: Truck Turner, Escape from New York, I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, Hustle & Flow

Recommended Albums: Hot Buttered Soul, Shaft, Black Moses, Live at the Sahara Tahoe

Bernie Mac left us with too small a legacy yet his career signalled a tremendous potential. Famed for his stand-up comedy, he moved on to host a short-lived talk show for HBO, called Midnight Mac, in 1995. However his breakthrough was his performance, that same year, as Pastor Clever in Friday.

2001 also was a breakthrough year for him. Not only did he appear as Frank Catton in Stephen Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven remake, he starred in The Bernie Mac Show, a long-running Peabody Award-winning sitcom on Fox.

In 2003, he replaced Bill Murray as Bosley in McG's Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. While making continued appearances as Catton in Ocean's Twelve (2004) and Ocean's Thirteen (2007), Mac's star continued to rise in films like Bad Santa (2003), where he had a small but important role, and with star vehicles such as Mr. 3000 (2004), and Guess Who (2005), a remake of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in which he costarred with Ashton Kutcher. His last appearance was as used car salesman Bobby Bolivia in Transformers (2007).

An interesting coincidence, Mac just shot a film where he costars with Samuel L. Jackson as a couple of Sam & Dave-like performers. Isaac Hayes costarred. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee, the film is titled Soul Men. No word yet on when to expect this one.

He died Saturday, at the age of 50.

Recommended Films - Friday, The Original Kings of Comedy, Ocean's Eleven, Charlie's Angel: Full Throttle, Mr. 3000, Guess Who, the upcoming Soul Men

Friday, August 8, 2008

Movie Trailer: Burn After Reading

by Tony Dayoub

Here's the trailer for the Coen Brothers' upcoming film, Burn After Reading, scheduled to open on September 12th.

This one should be less in the vein of their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, and more like Raising Arizona. It's about two gym employees who try to blackmail an ex-CIA official after finding his diary.

The stellar cast includes George Clooney (Leatherheads), Brad Pitt (Babel), Frances McDormand (North Country), John Malkovich (Eragon), Tilda Swinton (Michael Clayton), and Richard Jenkins (Six Feet Under).

Click on the picture above for a look at the trailer, and let me know what you think.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

DVD Review: Redbelt - Mamet's Mixed Martial Arts Movie is a Magnificent Mashup

by Tony Dayoub

Redbelt is writer-director David Mamet's exciting movie set in the burgeoning world of mixed martial arts. The movie's diverse cast is brought together from the worlds of sports, film, and Mamet's usual ensemble. This riveting film is a mashup of two classic genres, the samurai movie, and the fight movie. Using some of the traditional elements of these genres, and infusing the film with his own predilection for "now-you-see-it, now-you don't" trickery, Mamet (Homicide, State and Main) gives us a fresh take on what could have easily been a cliche-ridden story.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Movie Review: Pineapple Express - Stoner Comedy is a Disappointing Mess

by Tony Dayoub

Pineapple Express is the latest comedy from the guys who hang under the Judd Apatow (Knocked Up) shingle. And it is the first to utterly disappoint, I'm sorry to say. The movie's a mess. It doesn't know whether it wants to be a stoner comedy, or a mismatched buddy caper, or a crime thriller. Yeah, I get it... indie director David Gordon Green (Snow Angels) is trying to demonstrate he can bust all genre limitations with this one. And maybe it works as his audition reel for joining the studio system. But as a movie, it fails big.

It starts so promisingly, too. Process server Dale Denton (Seth Rogen) is sleepwalking through his thin misguided life. He dresses up in phony disguises to serve his subpoenas. Occasionally, he stops to visit his girlfriend, Angie (Amber Heard), at her high school. Any reflections on the sorry state of his life are mostly smoked away with pot he purchases from Saul Silver (James Franco). Saul is so insulated by his paranoia at getting caught dealing, that he aches for a friend. Dale is nice enough and cool enough to fit that bill, so Saul shares his newest batch of weed known as "Pineapple Express" with him. This batch is so uniquely good that smoking it is a shame. According to Saul, "It's like killing a unicorn... with a bomb."

Dale leaves to serve Ted Jones (Gary Cole), supplier of said "Pineapple Express", with a subpoena. Arriving at the wrong time, he witnesses Jones and his cop girlfriend, Carol (Rosie Perez), murdering a rival dealer. Dale takes off in a hurry, but Jones and Carol identify a roach the pothead leaves behind as containing his batch of marijuana. When Dale goes back to Saul, and finds out he's the first to buy a sample of the "Pineapple", they both realize that it is only a matter of time before Jones tracks them down and eliminates them.

This is where it begins to fall apart. Scenes go on far too long as we hang with Dale and Saul in the woods while they consider what their next move is in their pot-induced reverie. Conversations that show the beginnings of a joke or two, go around in meaningless circles till they finally just die. Is it meant to represent the feeling of being high? Sure it is. But it doesn't make for good entertainment if a comedy fails to make you laugh as this one frequently does. Cheech and Chong's films, Friday, and even the Harold and Kumar comedies all knew how to wring laughs from the stoner premise. Part of it is their fearlessness when descending into total inanity.

But director Green is hoping to elevate this to another level. The film fails there also. Attempts at giving the two buddies some depth through their shared experience seem forced, and ultimately squelched by the filmmakers' own hesitancy to venture into emotional territory. When, at various repetitive times, the two leads are in desperate straits, they frequently profess affection to each other. But it's always done tongue in cheek, or defused by a well-timed quip.

So is it a parody? I don't know. It seems to be too serious for that. At times, presenting itself as a crime thriller, like when Dale and Saul are finally confronted by Jones and his goons, the movie gets pretty graphic and intense with its violence. If Green is going for a Landis-like twist on chase movies, a la The Blues Brothers or even Into the Night, it fails there also. Landis knew how to tie up loose ends, for instance. Dale has Angie and her parents (Nora Dunn and Ed Begley, Jr.), hide in a motel, revisits Angie twice (with parents nowhere to be seen), only to never be heard from again before the movie concludes. I doubt that Dunn and Begley deigned to do this movie only to appear in one short, throwaway scene. I suspect, instead, that there are large chunks of this film on the cutting room floor.

This film is about as disjointed a one as I've seen in some time. It's like they threw everything at it but the kitchen sink, and hoped some of it would stick. Not silly enough to elicit laughs, not deep enough to explore the two stoner-buds' friendship, and not tight enough to serve as a thriller of any sort, Pineapple Express isn't even worthy to watch while high. So save yourself some time, money, and laugh-enhancing medication and just skip it.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Movie Trailer: Wonder Woman

by Tony Dayoub

Here's the trailer for another of Warner Premiere's continuing line of straight-to-DVD animated flicks, this one focusing on Wonder Woman.

The voice talent on this one is the most interesting so far with Keri Russell (Waitress) as Wonder Woman, Nathan Fillion (Desperate Housewives) as Steve Trevor, Virginia Madsen (Sideways) as Hyppolyta, Oliver Platt (Nip/Tuck) as Hades, Alfred Molina (Spider Man 2) as Ares, and Rosario Dawson (Sin City) as Artemis.

It is set for release on February 2009.

Click on the picture below for a look at the trailer.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Movie Review: Sixty Six - Coming of Age Comedy is Too Slight for Feature Length

by Tony Dayoub

Sixty Six is director Paul Weiland's semi-autobiographical tale about Bernie Rubens (Gregg Sulkin), a well-behaved but rather unremarkable Jewish boy growing up in 1966 England. In sports, he's always the last guy picked to join the team. At home, his mother (Helena Bonham Carter) is too busy babysitting his OCD-afflicted dad (Eddie Marsan), and tending to self-centered older brother Alvie (Ben Newton), to even notice the invisible Bernie's growing problem with asthma.

Bernie eagerly anticipates his upcoming Bar Mitzvah, certain that it will enhance his prestige among his school friends and his family. But after scheduling the celebration, he realizes that it is set for the same day as the 1966 World Cup final. His parents try to allay his fears, emphasizing that no one believes England will even make it to the final. But after a series of escalating mishaps, Bernie starts to realize that even his best efforts at casting spells, hexes, and curses in the direction of England's World Cup team may do little to prevent their destiny.

Reminiscent of Woody Allen's Radio Days, the tale is amusing, though it's story is slight and predictable to the extreme. One would hope that given the closeness he has to the story, Weiland (Made of Honor) would step up his approach to the film's structure. But it becomes obvious that Bernie's story is simply not sufficient to carry a feature length movie. There is a subplot that competes for our attention regarding Manny's business woes. Actor Marsan is so good at playing Manny, that his episodes in the film threaten to steal the spotlight from Bernie's story. To compund the problem, a narration by the lead is used to smooth over the jarring episodic structure. But all it really does is accentuate the cuteness and nostalgia, overly sentimentalizing the story.

There are great performances all around, not only from Marsan, but from Sulkin (in his screen debut), Carter, Stephen Rea as Bernie's doctor, and Richard Katz as Rabbi Linov.

But something is wrong when I care more about England's team making the final, than Bernie's celebration woes. For a more hilarious autobiographical account, rent Radio Days instead and wait for Sixty Six on DVD.

Sixty Six is in limited release. Check local listings for theaters and times.

Stills provided courtesy of First Independent Pictures.